The number of children trying vaping has risen by 50 per cent, according to a new study.
Data for Great Britain shows a rise in experimental vaping among 11- to 17-year-olds, from 7.7 per cent last year to 11.6 per cent this year.
While it is illegal to sell vapes to people under the age of 18, social media shows posts from teenagers with vapes and discussing flavours such as pink lemonade, strawberry, banana and mango.
Experts are now sounding the alarm and calling for the government to crack down on the spread of vapes among children.
The number of children who said they had tried vaping once or twice roughly doubled in nine years, rising from 5.6 per cent in 2014 to 11.6 per cent this year.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Ash, said: “We need to stem the tide of child vape experimentation and the government’s investment in a crackdown on illegal underage sales of vapes is a vital first step.
“But enforcement on its own won’t do the trick without tougher regulation to address the child-friendly promotion of these cheap and attractive products.
“The Ash youth survey demonstrates the rapid growth of in-store promotion of vapes, using brightly coloured pack displays, reminiscent of cigarette displays from yesteryear.
“The evidence is clear, government needs to take strong action to prevent the marketing of vapes to children.”
Disposable vapes appear to be the e-cigarette of choice among youngsters. Experts have warned previously how the new generation of disposable vapes known as “puff bars” – which contain nicotine – have flooded the market.
This is borne out by the latest survey, with Elf Bar being the most popular brand of disposable among children who vape, followed by Lost Mary, Elux, Geek Bar and Crystal.
In 2021, current child vapers were least likely to vape disposables (7.7 per cent) but in 2022 they became the most used (52 per cent) and this has continued to grow to 69 per cent in 2023.
The latest survey of 2,656 youngsters was carried out by YouGov in March and April for Action on Smoking and Health (Ash).
It will be submitted as part of the government’s call for evidence on measures to reduce the number of children accessing vaping, while ensuring e-cigarettes can still be used by adults who want to quit smoking.
The new data showed there has been no significant change since last year in the proportion of children currently smoking (4.8 per cent in 2022 and 3.6 per cent in 2023) or who say they currently vape (6.9 per cent in 2022 and 7.6 per cent in 2023).
When asked why they vape, 40 per cent of youngsters said they just wanted to give them a try, while 19 per cent used them because they wanted to join in with others, and 14 per cent said they like the flavours.
Nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of youngsters said their first vape was given to them, and two-thirds by a friend, but for children who currently vape, nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) said they usually buy their vapes.
Children usually bought vapes from corner shops, with others purchasing them from petrol stations or online.
When it comes to awareness of vapes being on sale, children were most aware of promotions in shops, up from 37 per cent last year to 53 per cent in 2023.
Online awareness has also risen (from 24 per cent to 32 per cent), while awareness via buses stood at 11 per cent.
Asked about online awareness, children who had seen vapes promoted online said they had seen them on TikTok (49 per cent), YouTube (29 per cent), Instagram (28 per cent) and Snapchat (24 per cent).
Geoff Worsley, a father from Abergele, north Wales, whose change.org petition Stop Children Vaping: More Regulation Now has more than 100,000 signatures, said: “Parents like me up and down the country are calling on government to act to protect our children from vaping as well as smoking.
“More funding for enforcement is a good first step but it’s not enough. Vaping is safer and better for smokers than smoking, but it shouldn’t be promoted to children.
“Regulations are needed to prevent vapes being openly sold in prominent positions within shops, in brightly coloured packaging and sweet names attractive to kids.
“We need tougher regulation to stop our children vaping and we need it now.”
Ash said, however, that fears vaping is leading to a new generation addicted to nicotine are not justified by the evidence to date.
It said the data showed that most of the 20.5 per cent of young people who have ever vaped have only vaped once or twice, or used to vape, or vape less than once a week.
Some 1.8 per cent of those polled said they vape between daily and weekly and 2 per cent every day.
Most (63 per cent) of those who have tried vaping once or twice have never smoked, the data also showed. Yet most (71 per cent) of current vapers have tried smoking.
Ann McNeill, professor of tobacco addictions at King’s College London, said the data showed that too many smoking adults and children believe vaping is more than or equally harmful as smoking.
“These misperceptions are likely to encourage children to believe that they might as well smoke as vape, and discourage adults who smoke but have never vaped from taking up the Government’s ‘swap to stop’ offer (of taking up vapes instead of cigarettes),” she said.
“A well-funded communications campaign is needed to address these growing misperceptions.”
Additional reporting by PA